Buenos Aires NWR--Arivaca Cienega, Pima County, AZ

Wednesday, March 2nd
Hoping to see a particular Life Bird for the past three years, I began to wonder if I would make the find this year. LONG-EARED OWLS had been reported for weeks on our local listserv (rare bird alert) as being seen at a distant wildlife refuge along Arizona's southern border with Mexico.

This past Saturday when Louis Hoeniger joined a few of us other birders at B & M Wildlife Area, he mentioned having been down to see it. Immediately, I started asking pertinent questions about what kind of vehicle I'd need. . .exactly what part of the wildlife refuge the owls were using for their roost. . .etc. His helpfulness motivated me to check out the site as soon as possible and I was fortunate to recruit birder friend, Jeanne Burns, to go with me.

From our meeting spot at 4:30 a.m., we arrived just two hours later at the McD's in Green Valley--our rest area.
Arivaca Road was not much farther south from I-19 to take us on over to the Arivaca Cienega. [Cienega is usually described as a marshy area but more specifically means a spring at the foot of a mountain or in a canyon or anyplace that groundwater bubbles up to the surface. It's more likely to evaporate than drain into another body of water.]

Standing at entrance parking lot

The well-marked loop trail at the wildlife refuge gave us pause. . .which direction do we go first?  Considering that our target Long-eared Owl would be finished his nighttime feeding and back to a tree to roost, it didn't seem overwhelmingly important one way or the other, so we turned right to begin birding at 7:15 a.m. Some of the large leafless cottonwoods, desert shrubs and grassy areas were bursting with birds: flickers with wide yellow underwings (Gilded); two kestrel in the same tree; several species of sparrows, wrens, and more. One male Vermilion Flycatcher was enough to bring a smile, but then there was another and another. A suspected Northern Cardinal turned out to be even better -- a male Pyrrhuloxia bouncing around from the ground into a mesquite tree and back, hiding as it checked us out. Its yellow beak on its very red face gave it away!

Knowing we had a target bird, I kept urging Jeanne along. But birding was so good, she suggested I just go on. A strikingly handsome Green-tailed Towhee kept me glued there momentarily.

A Bewick's Wren called from the understory; a Gray Flycatcher perched high in a distant tree. While Yellow-rumped Warblers and Abert's Towhees seemed to be found in small flocks, Loggerhead Shrikes were definite "loners" calling from their positions. A Great Blue Heron flew overhead.  

And, finally, we were at the spot. We knew it; we could feel it in our bones, but where the dickens was the owl? The photo Louis had taken of the Long-eared Owl showed how its belly feathers looked just like the trunk of the tree facing us from the path. But this tree was full of tangles -- Jeanne spotted it first.  See if YOU can spot it!

As a child, I used to love the hidden pictures in Children's Highlight magazines in the dentist's office; it made that awful trip worthwhile. These owls reminded me of how I used to consider this a fun thing! See how you get better at it after a while.

But how to photograph it? If I would take time to learn to use my camera as it can be used, my "good" photos below would be better (perhaps), but I also like to show "how I see the birds in the field". Zooming in on this delightful Long-eared Owl whose facial disc became more and more highlighted by the morning sun was a challenge.

When I tried for a full-length photo, the sticks prevailed but it shows from ear to tail in the following pic.

Who couldn't love this face?

After spending a half hour with this LIFE BIRD, I noticed that two Pipevine Swallowtails had landed on top the owl tree.

Since Jeanne had never visited Florida Canyon, we decided to leave the Cienega and do that on our way home. Wanting to beat afternoon commuter traffic, we wouldn't stay long but what a good visit it became! Jeanne was eager to head up the trail.

First, a woman showed us a butterfly she had just picked up on the dirt road; it was the same as posted above, pipevine swallowtail. The underside of it was also beautiful.

Our best sighting here was unbelievingly easy. In shrubs along the trail, within 100 feet of the stream crossing, two very gray Black-capped Gnatcatchers were showing off their (mostly) white tails as they flitted about. We caught their white eye rings and their bills, definitely longer than Black-tailed or Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. I assumed they were female since the black cap was missing but two birders coming down the trail confirmed our sighting and mentioned that the gnatcatchers hadn't yet transitioned into breeding plumage. So, their flitting about together may have been the beginning of a courtship.
The gnatcatchers were way too active for photos, so we settled on another good sighting at Florida Canyon - Greater Roadrunner. (Photo by Jeanne Burns)

After a successful 400-mile round-trip drive to the lower reaches of the state to find a Life Bird, I was still fired up with excitement when I arrived home at 3 p.m. Another very good day in the field.

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  1. Congrats on the Long-eared Owl, Babs! Fantastic looks and pictures of the "King of Camouflage!"

  2. Thanks, Tommy. Now, at least, I'll know what I'm looking for....locally.